This dissertation exposes important junctures between feminism, imperialism, and orientalism by investigating the encounter between Western and Middle Eastern feminists in the first-wave international women’s movement. I focus primarily on the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, and to a lesser extent, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. By examining the interaction and exchanges among Western and Middle Eastern women (at conferences and through international visits, newsletters and other correspondence), as well as their representations of “East” and “West,” this study reveals the conditions of and constraints on the potential for feminist solidarity across national, cultural, and religious boundaries. In addition to challenging the notion that feminism in the Middle East was “imposed” from outside, it also complicates conventional wisdom about the failure of the first-wave international women’s movement to accommodate difference.
Influenced by growing ethos of cultural internationalism during the interwar period, Western feminist attitudes toward Middle Eastern women were characterized less by overt racism and hostility to Islam than by a belief in the universal applicability of Western standards of progress. Some of the assumptions on which the discourse of feminist orientalism was based were shared by Middle Eastern feminists, who appropriated liberal ideals of national sovereignty and linear progress to articulate an autonomous vision of feminism that both challenged and affirmed loyalty to male nationalists. The common aspiration of modernity provided a fragile basis for solidarity between Western and Middle Eastern feminists, for whom the notion of sisterhood retained real meaning. But they understood its obligations differently. While Western feminists frequently invoked their responsibility to “lead” their less fortunate sisters, their Middle Eastern counterparts sought sisterly help from Western women in combating colonialism. The question of Palestine finally exposed the cracks in the foundation on which their unity had been built. It was around this issue that Western feminist orientalism collided most forcefully with Middle Eastern feminist nationalism.